Lin Yilin in conversation with Gianni Jetzer
Asia Art Archive in America
Feb 6, 2015
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise
Xiaofei Mo (XM): Thank you everyone for joining us tonight. We are delighted to have Lin Yilin and Giani Jetzer here to discuss their practices and collaboration. Since the early 1990s, Lin Yilin has focused on performance, sculptural installation, and public intervention to investigate the relationship between the body and its surroundings, and to test the limits of public space through absurd yet subtle actions. Last year in 2014, Gianni and Chris Sharp co-curated ‘Le Mouvement’ in the city of Biel in Switzerland, a three-part exhibition which examined the nature and uses of public space, performance, body, and sculpture. As part of this exhibition Lin Yilin Lin presented his latest piece The Departure From Her Feet, in which he slowly rolled down the streets toward the town hall from three different sites in three consecutive days.
I look forward to learning more about this work and your collaboration. To get started, Gianni will talk about the framework and background of ‘Le Mouvement,’ before we move on to discuss Lin Yilin’s practice. I was reading a conversation between Giani and Chris Sharp earlier today and I am curious about what you said about wanting to reduce public space to its fundamental components, as space and body, and that you didn’t want to bring in the political side of public space, while as a matter of fact public space is often considered within a socio-political context. This exhibition, for example, featured no activism, so I would love to hear more about that. Over to you, Gianni.
Gianni Jetzer (GJ): Thank you very much for the invitation. It’s a pleasure to introduce ‘Le Mouvement’ and Lin Yilin’s work. ‘Le Mouvement’ was a very special case. First of all, it was the 12th edition of the Swiss Sculpture exhibition. The first edition took place in 1954, in the post WWII period. As everybody knows, there was really no WWII in Switzerland, but nonetheless, public life was pretty diminished and there was not much money to spend for art or on public art. So in 1954, it was a big deal to have such an event and to have new art produced for it. Public space in Switzerland has changed dramatically, on many levels. On one level we were interested in the fact that electronic communications have infiltrated public space to a such an extent that people navigate it with their smartphone making it increasingly difficult for artworks to be seen there. Biel is a small city with 17,000 inhabitants, and has the highest number of foreign nationals. It also has a lot of unemployment, for Switzerland at least, so demographically it is a very interesting town and a perfect little laboratory for an exhibition. We opted for performance because we wanted to test the ground of public space. Our fear was that public space no longer existed and that people don’t use it in a way that helps to raise democratic issues, resolve democratic problems or find new ways to generate community. We felt that public space had become pretty utilitarian, that people walk from A to B using public space or when they’re waiting for the bus and so on, but actually not much happens there. Our idea was to invite performers who didn’t wear costumes or use props or have stories to tell. We wanted the physical presence of an acting, living human body to confront passersby, and to trigger a reaction. It didn’t matter if these encounters caused people to walk or run away, or stay and spend time. What we wanted to achieve was to have the inhabitants change their perceptions of the city, to experience something that would trigger a new perception and a different way to use their city.
An example of a performance is a work by a Danish artist Nina Beier, called The Complete Works. She’s a retired dancer and she tried to dance her whole repertoire by heart, to remember all the roles she had ever danced. Of course she would fail every now and then, at which point she would stop, try to remember, and then go on.
A second example is Jiří Kovanda, the famous Czech performance artist who did a lot of street performances in Prague in the 1970s. He performed a piece called Kissing through Glass where he offered to kiss people through glass. Kissing through glass is an unusual experience. Even though the visual information is the same, the level of intimacy is different.
The third part of the show was based on existing work, for example Valie Export’s Body Configurations that explores the interface between the city and the performer’s body. So it was a very natural choice when we discovered there was such an artist as Lin Yilin. He brought exactly what we wanted. We had encountered his San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge project. He was performing with his bare body, he was operating in a public space, and he was facing a lot of issues we wanted to get into, about the awareness of public space. So we invited him and he produced a new piece called Departure from Her Feet. He will introduce this piece in a couple of minutes, but first I’m going to tell you a little bit more about him.
Lin Yilin was born in Guangzhou and studied art at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1987. In 1990 he was one of the co-founding members of the Big Tail Elephant Group, founded by Lin, Chen Shaoxiong, and Liang Juhui, and later joined by Xu Tan. Guangzhou was one of the faster growing cities in China, and the Big Tail Elephant Group used this rapid urbanization as a stage and as a foil to react against and react with. He’s done a lot of street performances. One of his iconic pieces was completed in 1995 and entailed crossing a road while building a cement brick wall, one brick at a time, from one side of the street to the other. During this painstaking process he crosses the street more or less safely, like a very slow organism. It’s quite miraculous to watch how the traffic moves around and yet he’s able to protect his wall, and get to the other side. Lin Yilin has had a very successful international career. He’s had residencies and shows at MoMA P.S.1 and at many other places. Today he lives in Beijing and New York. I’m very curious and honored to hear from Lin Yilin now, about his work and the Biel exhibition.
Lin Yilin (LY): First of all, thank you Asia Art Archive for organizing the conversation tonight and thank you, Gianni, for making the time. I’m looking forward to having an intimate discussion with you all. The piece I presented at Biel is extremely simple. The curator invited me a year in advance to visit the city. I only spent two days there so I had a very limited knowledge of the site and its history. For me it’s very difficult to communicate with curators. I don’t want to repeat the work I’ve done before. My work is also not like a dance piece or choreography. And it doesn’t involve a lot of technical challenges. Instead my work is very simple; it’s something anyone can perform. It’s always difficult for me to think of how to translate this piece into a new context, but after learning more about the curators’ ideas, I took the piece I did in San Francisco and turned it into something even simpler. At Biel, it’s only me rolling on the ground, but in San Francisco I had invited other students to perform with me. As a non-Western artist, when I use my body to intervene into Western society, I’ll need some imagination about that society, so I chose a site, the statue of Justice.
GJ: The figure on the fountain is a symbol of Justice. The woman’s eyes are blindfolded and she has a sword and a scale, which are symbols of justice.
Lin Yilin, The Departure From Her Feet, 2014, performance, Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. Image courtesy of the artist.
LY: Therefore I named this piece Departure from Her Feet. At first I decided to take only one route from this statue of Justice to City Hall where the mayor’s office is located. But after discussing this with the two curators, I decided to add two other routes. The second route was from a public square (Zentralplatz) and the third started from the Museum of Contemporary Art (Centre PasquART). These performances were executed over the course of three days. And they all ended at the City Hall.
When I begin thinking about a project, I rarely know how long or how much my body can endure. So whenever I carry out a project, I often finish at a point that my body can’t deal with it anymore. It’s interesting to think about how chance is involved in my projects. I also have great anxiety every time I carry out my projects. One of the interesting things about this piece is that when you see it in a photograph, my movement looks very elegant, but when you look at the video, you can see how difficult and challenging that movement was.
Lin Yilin, The Departure From Her Feet, 2014, performance, Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. Image courtesy of the artist.
Audience Member: Did you practice rolling?
LY: There was no rehearsal.
XM: How many assistants or cameramen were with you?
LY: One assistant, one cameramen and one photographer.
Audience Member: Did you spend a lot of time studying the route you were going to take so you would know exactly where to go?
LY: When I visited the site I wasn’t planning to do this project. I decided on this performance only after I had left the city, so I did most of my research through Google Maps. And because I did most of the research through Google Maps, I didn’t physically experience how long the route would be.
Audience Member: Did you train physically?
LY: No, I’m extremely lazy.
What you are looking at now is the mayor’s office. On the last day of the performance, the Mayor actually came out, and because he had no idea that someone was doing a performance, he got scared and went back into his office.
Lin Yilin, Golden Journey, 2011, performance, 45 mins, San Francisco. Image courtesy of the artist.
This project developed from the Golden Journey, a project I did in 2011 in San Francisco. Initiated by the curator Hou Hanru, the Golden Journey project was a collaboration with Kadist Art Foundation and the San Francisco Art Institute. In it I rolled on the ground over three routes, but in that case, I collaborated with many volunteers and students. Because this piece was done in San Francisco, it was not that physically challenging. San Francisco is very hilly which helped me to roll on the ground. The bigger challenge was that I worried that San Francisco would be similar to New York and that police would interfere with the performance. As it turned out, there were not many police there. But as you can see in this image, my performance took place on Lombard Street that also allows cars, so when I did that performance, cars had to wait a half an hour for me to finish. It’s funny that when we did the performance across the Golden Gate Bridge for some reason there were a lot of airplanes above us, so maybe our actions caught their attention.
Lin Yilin, Triumph, 2009, performance, 90 mins, Paris. Image courtesy of the artist.
This is another piece I did on the Champs Elysees in Paris. In this case the performance was not my own invention. Rather I saw a scene exactly like this in Haikou, a city in China. There I saw a young man with his hands cuffed to his ankles, so I suspect he might have been arrested — he might have been a thief. I tried to re-stage that scene in Paris to test how pedestrians and police would react.
Lin Yilin, Safely Maneuvering across Lin He Road, 1995, performance, 90 mins, Guangzhou. Image courtesy of the artist.
This is the piece in 1995 that Gianni mentioned. I performed this in Guangzhou and it is called Safely Maneuvering across Lin He Road.
Audience Member: Do you do performances like that in Beijing?
LY: No. In 1995 nobody had their cellphones [so calling the police was difficult.] But now it’s impossible, because now the people can call the police easily. In fact, I also timed this performance for lunchtime because police go out for lunch then.
Audience Member: Do you teach this at the Central Academy? Do your students do performances like this?
LY: I teach at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, but no, I don’t think so.
Audience Member: Was the brick from local suppliers?
LY: Yes. I was so tired after the performance and didn’t know what to do with the bricks, so I just left them there. But it happened to be a construction site so the workers could use them. That building [adjacent to the road that you can see in the background] was supposed to be the highest building in Asia at the time. While my early work took place, I did it in Guangzhou China. Later I moved to New York. When I started to have opportunities to work in the Western context, I switched my strategy accordingly. I think the idea of migration, not just transnationally, has a lot to do with my artistic development.
GJ: I would like to make a comment about Lin Yilin’s work and what I thought was so interesting about the performance he did in Biel. When you conceived your performance on Google Maps, it was like drawing three lines across the city and connecting those lines at carefully chosen points – one point was the office of the mayor and another point was the museum. On the one hand, you can see the mayor as a type of manager, because his job is all about taking care of the city and the business of the city, but on the other hand you can see him as the highest ranked city official or person in the city with the most influence. Then you have the Museum. Lin Yinlin’s performance connects buildings and institutions together through the body of the artist.
Another thing I find interesting about Lin Yilin’s performance is that he breaks the taboo of touching the floor. Normally you only touch the floor if you are either helpless, for example you faint, or you’re a bum and you have fallen out of society. Otherwise you’re upright. It’s a taboo to touch the floor. But in moving along the floor, and lying on the floor, Lin becomes very vulnerable, but he is also performing. He connects different elements: elements of being vulnerable but also elements of performance. At one point some African immigrant ask whether they should call the police or an ambulance. This is intriguing because it raises an interesting conflict. These two functions – the police or an ambulance… Did you break the law or do you need help? Which side are you on?
LY: From what I understand, the curators at first wanted the performances to blend into everyday life, so that the passersby wouldn’t necessary know whether it’s an art piece or a performance. But in my piece it’s very obvious what I am doing is abnormal, that it’s strange. However, I don’t know if people related to it as art or as a performance, so I think it coincided at the end.
GJ: Maybe you could talk a little bit about the differences for you as a performer, in a big city like San Francisco versus a little community like Biel.
LY: In San Francisco, although it was a collaboration with the Kadist Art Foundation and the San Francisco Institute of Art, it wasn’t for a specific exhibition or festival. So when I performed that piece I was very worried that the police would intervene in some way. But in Europe there was this exhibition, and the whole city was prepared to have a lot of performances happening over the course of two weeks, so I wasn’t concerned about getting into trouble. Another difference is that San Francisco is a bigger and more urban space, whereas Biel is a very small town. In Biel there was a more intimate relationship with the audience. In San Francisco I had to organize this temporary community of people, but in Biel, because of the exhibition, there was a kind of invisible structure supporting the performance from behind.
GJ: A question about public space. Can you describe the different kinds of public spaces that you have encountered in your career as a performance artist, beginning with Guangzhou in the early 1990s, then in Beijing, the United States, and Europe. How has public space changed and how much does public space relate to the political system?
LY: In China, whether it’s in Guangzhou or Beijing, the society has changed very rapidly. Public space has a lot to do with regulation and surveillance, but back in the 1990s in China there wasn’t much regulation and because of that, I was able to do a lot of action in the street. By contrast, during the same period (i.e. in the 1990s) I did a piece in Hong Kong which was already a highly regulated civil society. New York is also very controlled, and now Beijing is too, so I’m extremely limited in what I can do on the street there. I’ve only done performance twice in New York and both times they have taken place indoors. As an individual artist I haven’t yet had the courage to challenge the streets of New York.
GJ: You’re obviously an expert in urban space. If you’ve had the chance to become involved in city planning, what kind of urban space would you create and what would you want your city to look like?
LY: It’s a question that has never occurred to me. Before college I wanted to become an architect, but in China to become an architect you have to be very good at math and physics, so I ended up in art school. After college I worked in an interior design firm, from which I learned that a designer or architect had to follow the client’s decision. But I have never thought about designing urban space. Now I’ll start to think about it!
GJ: The biggest problem we encountered in Biel during the 6-7 days of our project were the many other events that were taking place at the same time. At one point there was a 15-foot duck that was inflated in the square, so we had to cancel a performance.
Audience Member: Regarding New York City, would you have to (or want to) apply for permits to do your performance or would that defeat the purpose of your work?
LY: I doubt that I would be able to get a permit in New York. One time I tried to set up a tripod in Times Square, but the police immediately said I wasn’t allowed to do that; the same thing happened in Beijing, and I wasn’t even in the center of the city. I set up a tripod but a security officer told me to stop.
GJ: Regarding my story about the inflatable duck, what I would like to say is that today’s cities are always getting filled up. For centuries cities had monuments and sculptures of emperors, and now it’s events. Most cities are afraid of empty squares because empty squares are an invitation to protest, or to think on your own. That’s why they put inflatable ducks in the squares.
XM: Gianni, working with artists from all around the world, what kind of challenges have you encountered bringing artists from different social contexts into the same public space?
GJ: As a curator one part of your identity is to be a host, to host the artist, to make them feel good and provide them with the opportunity to create good and challenging work. But in this situation things were different. We didn’t live in Biel so we had to depend on a lot of partnerships. Also the event takes place only every five years. But in the end it wasn’t that difficult, and what we wanted to do worked out well for the city. For example, if we would have done the same thing in New York City, there would have been 500 tourists with cameras, expecting some crazy artist to do some crazy thing and that can easily destroy the atmosphere. But that’s the advantage of Biel. It’s not a very spectacular city and art isn’t on the top 10 issues that people are thinking about. So our event stayed under the radar which was good. As Lin said, there is a big difference between performing by himself in, let’s say, San Francisco, and performing in the context of an exhibition, by invitation, as part of a city-funded event. In the latter case you have to watch out that the artists are not used like live animals, like animals in a 21st century version of Barnum’s circus. So do I think the context is important. I was once asked to organize performances in Washington D.C., but I don’t really know what kind of performances one could do on the Mall. It’s so symbolic. Also there’s also no street life, so if we organized a performance there, the context would be completely different.
Audience Member: Have you ever experienced disturbances that meant your performance couldn’t be continued?
LY: That happened once when I did a piece in Hong Kong in 1996. Similar to the work I did in Guangzhou in 1995, I attempted to move a brick wall through a sky bridge over the course of three days. But on the second day (people already had those huge cell phones) some passersby called the police and a government worker came and stopped the performance. The government worker wasn’t worried that I was breaking the law. Rather, because a TV crew was filming me, they were worried that it would get into the media and the government would get in trouble.
Audience Member: Get in trouble in what way?
Audience Member: If you’ve been to Hong Kong you would know, it’s a city of worry. People are constantly worrying that they might get in trouble. It’s very bureaucratic in that way. No one wants to be criticized. So no one is willing to take risks, least of all the government officials.
Audience Member (translated by Xiaofei Mo): Performance art is often viewed through video documentation so as an artist you probably think about the camera and think about the viewer’s point of view when you execute a performance. Sometimes it can be tricky as you need to balance that and your relationship with the real audience on site. What do you think about this?
LY: Regarding the relationship between documentation or performance, I think about a lot. I’m not a very rich artist so often times when I do my performance I rely on my friends or volunteers from the institution to help me shoot the process. In that case I have very little control over the quality.
XM: Gianni, how do you think about documenting all these hundreds of artists in this performance event? Or do you let artists do their own documentation?
GJ: We offer documentation, and in fact on Vimeo, there’s a video of this performance. We always ask the artist if they agree to releasing the footage, and of the 22 artists in this event, 10 agreed. But I think it’s always dangerous, because the performance is the performance, and it includes the spatial quality of the city in which it happens. But now with all the social media and iPhone cameras, people think they’ve seen it [once they have taken a snapshot] and in some cases they think photographing it does more justice to the piece than viewing it.
LY: I think no matter if you are a performance artist or a painter or a musician, you are working within the trajectory of art history. You are responding to a certain set of histories. A certain action can mean many things, but in fact it was performed at a certain time and in a certain place, and that specificity creates meaning for the work socially and the context for the work politically.
Audience Member: Who are the artists that have influenced you?
LY: The question of influence is particularly complicated in my case, because when I grew up the social context changed every two years. In the art academy they were teaching very traditional Socialist Realist techniques, but during [the so-called] ‘85 New Wave movement, we received a lot of influence from Western philosophy and Western theory. However, that was in the 1980s and it was still before globalization, so we were reading all those texts with a lot of imagination about the West but without actually knowing what was happening there. Mine is a very complicated history, so it’s hard to respond to your question.
Audience Member: What do you feel you can do in the context of teaching, performing, and making art in China? What kind of restrictions do you feel you have?
LY: I think performance art is always under certain restrictions. And restrictions are actually necessary for the performance. Every artist probably intuitively reacts to the specifics of the social context. Maybe the bigger the restrictions the better the work could be. In terms of education, I’m currently teaching at CAFA in the experimental art department. Even though I’m a performance artist I don’t require my students to do performance. I think what’s important is for each artist to respond to his/her very individual sensibility. As long as they’re doing that I don’t think it’s a question of what kind of format or medium one uses. In the case of China it might seem very restricted on the surface, but in fact there’s a lot of space for people to find their own method of doing things.
Audience Member: Lin Yilin, I’m going to challenge you a little bit. For me, you seem to follow the path of Tehching Hsieh, but when Tehching Hsieh came to New York, he felt it necessary to engage with the society as well as the environment of New York. My challenge therefore is why haven’t you taken on New York yet?
LY: I think there’s a difference between my practice and Teching Hsieh’s practice. First of all he was from an earlier generation than me, and he also had military experience back in Taiwan. And while he had done performance already in Taiwan, he really started his career in New York. In my case I was already doing work in China, I was already a part of the Big Tail Elephant group, and I was already participating in exhibitions in Europe before I came to New York. When I was working in China there was no system at all, everything was self-organized and artists did things together. But when I came to New York, I worked in a more passive way. I worked when I received an invitation from a curator in America or Europe. But I had and still have problems getting into the art system in New York. The one similarity between me and Tehching Hsieh is that our work is a very bodily response to survival, to the environment. But the difference is Tehching Hsieh has tried to restrict himself through self-confinement, but for me it’s about going out into the street. It’s not about going back into the self; rather it’s about going out into the public space. Maybe that’s the biggest difference between Tehching Hsieh and myself.
Gianni Jetzer is an independent curator and critic based in New York as well as Curator-at-large at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC. He has realized numerous exhibitions with artists in his positions as curator at Migros Museum in Zurich (1998–2001), Director of Kunsthalle St. Gallen (2001–2006), and Director of Swiss Institute in New York (2006–2013). He is currently the curator of Unlimited, Art Basel’s pioneering exhibition platform for projects that transcend the limitations of a classical art-show as well as the curator of the independent biennial La Otra in Bogota, Colombia in 2015. As a critic Jetzer has written many contributions for catalogues, art magazines, and newspapers such as Parkett, Flash Art, Spike, and Kaleidoscope and is the publisher of books on e.g. Andro Wekua, Saskia Olde Wolbers, Shirana Shahbazi, and Richard Phillips. He is a faculty member at SVA MFA Fine Arts New York and previously was a Lecturer at the Master of Arts in Fine Arts, Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK), Zurich.